Slugging it out: sale of Hillerich & Bradsby Co. wooden bats up 500,000 a year

The crack is back.

The distinctive sound made when a wooden baseball bat meets flying horsehide, that is.

Few people will be surprised to learn that Louisville’s Hillerich & Bradsby Co. is moving its Southern California aluminum bat plant to a larger building because of increased demand for aluminum Louisville Sluggers. After all, everyone knows metal usssa softball bats have supposedly been bashing their wooden counterparts toward obsolescence for nearly two decades now.

But baseball is a game of statistics. And here’s an interesting one: Since 1986, sales of wooden Louisville Sluggers have increased by 500,000 a year–while sales of aluminum Sluggers have risen by just over 400,000 annually.

Although trends, percentages and revenues continue to predict a more metallic future, the surge in the company’s wooden-bat sales–from just under one million in 1986 to 1.5 million in both 1990 and 1991–represents a 50-percent increase.

Competitors report similar results.

For instance, Worth Bat. Co., of Tullahoma, Tenn., said it has doubled wooden bat sales to 200,000 a year since 1988. And Rawlings Sporting Goods–maker of Adirondack bats–said its wooden bat sales are also up considerably.

That’s not to say wood is winning the war. Metal bats still outsell wooden ones by a 3-to-2 margin worldwide–although that ratio is reversed at Hillerich & Bradsby.

Observers say there are several possible explanations for the comeback of wooden bats.

* Cost. Aluminum bats are far more durable, but they retail at $20 to $70. Wooden bats cost between $10 and $15. Fast-growing discount retail chains like Target and K mart stock both, meaning tens of thousands of extra sales each year.

“Every time a Herman’s or a Wal-Mart opens, they order 200 or 300 wooden bats,” said Bill Williams, vice president of advertising and promotional sales at Hillerich & Bradsby.

* The memorabilia craze. Sales of limited edition, commemorative bats to major-league stars and stores for resale to collectors now make up 7.5 percent of Hillerich & Bradsby’s wooden-bat sales, said Williams. Another 6.5 percent goes to corporations for use as premiums for customers and incentives for employees. That market alone is up 29 percent in the past year, he said.

* Major-league dreams. Aluminum bats, which are harder and have a larger “sweet spot,” are banned in professional baseball. Some observers say more and more college and other amateur players are switching back to wooden bats–at least for practice–in the belief that it’ll make the adjustment to the pros easier.

Williams, for one, doesn’t buy that explanation. Even though amateur players buy three out of four wooden bats sold by Hillerich & Bradsby, Williams believes most amateurs with professional aspirations are sticking with aluminum, hoping to impress scouts with higher batting averages.

While Hillerich & Bradsby still sells 50-percent more wooden bats than aluminum ones, metal bats account for more than twice as much of the firm’s annual revenue.

For fiscal 1990, aluminum bats accounted for 30 percent of the company’s $80 million in revenue, while wooden-bat sales brought in just 13 percent. Williams said final figures aren’t in for 1991, but he suspects aluminum’s share rose slightly–a trend the company expects to continue.

The big reason is the difference in cost.

Not only has the number of aluminum bats sold by Hillerich & Bradsby skyrocketed from just under 600,000 to over one million annually in the past four years, Williams said, “but the average selling price has just zoomed.”

That’s because most of the new sales were generated by the introduction of Louisville Slugger TPS softball bats and TPX baseball bats–the company’s most expensive models.

During each of the past two springs, the company has had difficulty filling orders for aluminum bats from its small plant in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., in suburban Los Angeles.

That’s why it’s moving to a leased 80,000-square-foot building in nearby Ontario in late August, Williams said. The new building is twice as large as the old one, although it will also replace warehouse space the company had used at a third location.

Tom Harris, manager of the aluminum plant, said the factory has increased its number of employees by 35 percent because of the move and increase in demand. Williams said that figure equates to between 10 and 15 new jobs.

Meanwhile, Hillerich & Bradsby President Jack Hillerich has said that changes in technology and in delivery systems have left the company’s wooden-bat plant in Southern Indiana with too much space. The company is currently studying a possible move of that plant to the Louisville river-front in conjunction with a proposed baseball museum.

Even though Hillerich & Bradsby doesn’t expect sales of wooden Louisville Sluggers to approach their 1971 peak of 6.9 million again, the wooden model does have one ace up its sleeve.

The expansion of Major League Baseball into Denver and Miami in 1993–and the resulting minor-league franchises that will be created–are expected to generate about 30,000 wooden bat orders a year.

And Louisville Slugger currently controls about two-thirds of the professional market.

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